Memory Politics: On ‘Franco’s Crypt’

Memory Politics: On ‘Franco’s Crypt’

Memory Politics: On ‘Franco’s Crypt’

To what extent does Franco’s rule still dictate contemporary Spanish culture?


In August 1954, the American writer Richard Wright traveled to Spain after having spent the better part of a decade “shunning” all thoughts of the country like “the memory of a bad love affair.” His friends had long been urging him to visit. As Wright recounts in his travelogue  Pagan Spain, published in 1957, it was Gertrude Stein who told him: “Go to Spain. You’ll see the past there. You’ll see what the Western world is made of.” In her view, Spain beckoned as a kind of African corridor, a hinterland jutting out of Europe. Wright shared Stein’s entrancement with the place. Driving south from France, he surveyed the Pyrenees like they were an outer boundary of the continent: “the look of the world darkened; a certain starkness of mood hovered over the landscape.” Wright was developing a stormy regard for the Western tradition and all that it implied, which made Spain even more alluring. Still, something held him back—what he called a perplexing “state of mind.” “Totalitarian governments and ways of life were no mysteries to me,” he wrote. “So why avoid the reality of life under Franco? What was I scared of?”

When Wright penned these lines, sometime during a string of visits between 1954 and ’55, Spaniards were wilting amid the airless gloom of Gen. Francisco Franco’s totalitarian rule; the country was mired in poverty and hounded by repression. Wright wanted his book to bring this suffering to light, but in the end he settled for a more schematic appraisal. Spanish life under Franco, he argued, was the apogee of centuries of national character formation and idiosyncrasy. The country was shaped by proto-religious superstitions, ritualistic hang-ups, misogyny, cultish mysticism and a love of gore. Spain was just so Spanish, he concludes.

With Franco’s Crypt, the British critic Jeremy Treglown seeks to put the Spanish back in Spain. Treglown wants to “make more sense” of contemporary Spain by analyzing “Franco’s influence on Spanish culture” during the nearly four decades of his rule, which ended with his death in 1975, and up to the present day. Treglown’s conceit is to have Spaniards reclaim their own story—to tell it to us, for a change. For all the international light shone on the Spanish Civil War, the view of Spain from outside its borders typically blurs during the era of one of Europe’s longest dictatorships. Treglown repeatedly stresses the need to counter what he calls the “Franco effect.” Artistic and intellectual work done in Spain during the dictatorship “was tainted by association,” he writes, and therefore is often overlooked. As a corrective, Treglown studies the Spanish art, literature and public works produced during and just after Franco’s rule and which he rightly thinks have been neglected by critics and journalists outside Spain.

Treglown has written about Spain for Granta, and he lives there on a remote finca for part of every year. Like others before him—including The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett, author of the intellectual guidebook cum travelogue Ghosts of Spain (2007)—Treglown makes all the obligatory stops. The book opens with a visit to the recently disinterred fosas comunes (mass graves), in which the unidentified corpses of Republicans and their sympathizers were hastily buried by opposing partisans during the civil war. Battles rage to this day about excavating and identifying the remains. For any student of the country, these sites are ideal crucibles for analyzing the wars of so-called “historical memory.”

Treglown also visits the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive crypt that Franco forced withered Republican prisoners to erect after the war as a monument to him and the Nationalist cause. A standard set-piece in English-language books about contemporary Spain is a visit to this bleak landmark on November 20, the day of Franco’s death and, in an eerie coincidence, also that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange. It is a chilling occasion in every telling. Rabid right-wingers turn out at the Valle de los Caídos, along with skinheads and a motley cast of thugs, and there’s a lot of whooping and hollering and general menace-making. Treglown builds a chapter around the annual melee—his book’s title alludes to the Valley of the Fallen—but Tremlett’s account is better.

Franco’s Crypt is a well-intentioned book whose author seems exceedingly aware that for all his research, he remains something of an outsider. His acknowledgments page reads, perhaps a bit self-consciously, like a Who’s Who of the Spanish intellectual establishment. On occasion, especially when Treglown is explaining knotty contemporary debates and squabbles, prominent figures like the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina are given key cameos, and Treglown hews fairly closely to their line. To Hispanophiles, his heedfulness may be a welcome sign of authorial scruples. However, his approach also renders somewhat predictable the juiciest part of the book: his exposition of the “politics of memory.”

* * *

“In trying to identify what’s special about Spain, I soon found that much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with ‘memory,’ ” Treglown writes. The history of the civil war and the Franco years is a source of great acrimony in Spain—that much is uncontroversial. On one side is a movement calling for redoubled scrutiny of the past. At its head are descendents of the civil war dead, coupled with activists and anthropologists who together have crisscrossed the country looking for answers to the crimes and atrocities committed by Franco and his forces. Though their cause predates it, they have been empowered by a 2007 law, passed by the Socialists, that’s made it easier to excavate mass graves; nevertheless, political support for their project—while spirited in some quarters of the Spanish left—has been unsteady, for the most part. At the other end of the political spectrum is the renewed recalcitrance of Spanish conservatives, who see the activists’ fact-finding as a kind of open-ended prosecution. To them, the quest to restore “historical memory” is partisan and opportunistic—a headlong rush to blame—or, worse yet, a threat to the social order.

The controversy shows few signs of abating, even as “digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand,” as Treglown notes in regard to Spain’s tanking economy. Not that a disgruntled Spaniard should have to choose between outrage over unemployment and indignation over the unresolved crimes of the Franco era. Treglown is more of a tourist when it comes to laying out the context and stakes of the memory debate. He notes trends such as how many Spaniards today harbor a negative view of Franco (about 50 percent, according to a footnote). That presumes, of course, that everyone is thinking about the same Francisco Franco. To a 30-year-old Spaniard in 2013, Franco is not necessarily the caudillo revered or despised by her father or grandfather. It’s not that either conception of the dictator is wrong or fabricated, just that the subject is, for better or worse, evolving. “The older generation,” Treglown writes, “does by and large have a juster, more complex understanding of the mid-twentieth century than do younger people.” But in what country wouldn’t that be true? That Spain has never stopped living with Franco is the point, and all that he left in his wake—bodies, crimes, eternal grievances—has become the pockmarked terra firma of contemporary Spain. It is why younger Spaniards sound, by turns, brasher and more flippant about the past; why the dictator, with time, has come to mean both more and less than he once did. This all makes the country a good deal harder to explain.

Still, Treglown is right about two things: that “memory politics” is essentially an open front in the country’s ongoing culture wars, and that disenchantment and opportunism have festered because of unique historical circumstances. “Franco died in bed,” Spaniards say: he never was deposed. Instead, his decline was slow and protracted, an eventuality that everyone foresaw but no one knew exactly how to address. What followed was a rapid period of transition, initiated from within the ranks of the Francoist establishment, which saw the writing on the wall. This was Western Europe in 1975, and even among the European Community’s stunted southern members (Greece, Portugal and, to an extent, Italy), Spain was the last autocracy to fall. Politicians rebranded themselves virtually overnight: hardliners “softened” into passable conservatives; leftist parties were legalized; and communist stalwarts threw their weight behind the king (their only ticket into the political system). Most everyone feinted toward the center because it was the best way to level the playing field in heady, uncertain times, and that required a suspension of longstanding enmities. The whole arrangement, which was both casual and formal (an amnesty law was passed in 1977, shielding Franco-era crimes from prosecution), became known as the pacto de olvido—an agreement to forget. Treglown is right to marvel about its pragmatism: it “may be derided today but it served a crucial purpose,” he maintains. The Spanish transition to democracy would not have been as swift or as sure had the mainstream political parties not agreed to look the other way about redressing old ills. But the pact was a victim of its own success: it was a political calculation, not a truly civic consensus, and one that could hardly be expected to hold up well over time.

One obvious and confounding effect of the pacto de olvido has been that full-throated calls for justice have emerged decades after the crimes in question were committed. As anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz has noted, the movement to excavate mass graves emerged in 2001, during a period of economic calm, and later picked up steam. Treglown, who is not alone in finding this newfound zeal for the past a bit suspect, tunes in to the saga during the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004–11). Treglown is diligent in his reporting on the historical-memory movement, but it is clear that his sympathy for the movement’s participants has its limits; he thinks the cause is “futile,” even as he pays one woman involved a backhanded compliment: “Anyone who met her would respect her for taking an interest, however subjective, in a cataclysm that had so affected her family.” In Treglown’s telling, the “political manipulation”—or appropriation—of the memory issue began with Zapatero and the Socialist Party, which in 2004 “immediately [pushed] through its Law of Historical Memory, with the probably intentional effect of inducing key members of the conservative Partido Popular to oppose it.” The law condemned the Franco regime; promised state aid in exhumation projects; granted the opportunity to reclaim Spanish citizenship to families exiled during and after the war; and banned political rallies at the Valle de los Caídos. Treglown would have done better to spend more time discussing the law’s particulars, but for his purposes its chief importance was political: the Socialists sounded an old cri de coeur and thus baited conservatives into showing their true colors.

The irony here—which is an essential part of the story—seems lost on Treglown. With the Law of Historical Memory, Zapatero was not so much pre-empting conservatives as fending off Socialist rivals; more than anything else, the law was a calculation designed to burnish his own progressive credentials as a dynamic up-and-comer in a Socialist establishment aligned with and anointed by Felipe González, the prime minister from 1982 to 1996. As an unproven, mainstream lefty in Europe in the early 2000s, Zapatero faced a basic challenge: How could he distinguish himself from the creeping neoliberalism of his party following the adoption of the euro? The old guard of the party, known as “Felipistas,” honored all the familiar pieties—above all, a sanguine view of the transition from Franco and a reticence in rehashing debates about the past. Younger Spaniards were drawn to the fresh-faced promise of Zapatero, as were longtime Socialist voters who were alienated by the party’s rampant ’90s-era corruption. Historical memory was not some frivolity to Zapatero’s swelling ranks of supporters, even if his critics were right to consider him a bit of an intellectual slouch. He actually did sound different, and whether a partisan maneuver or not, the self-righteousness about historical memory was a genuine product of the times (just as conciliation and paternalism were the rhetorical graces of transition-era politicians). Talking gamely about his Republican grandfather (a Zapatero favorite) chimed with a broader agenda of prioritizing social issues like gender equality and gay rights. If Zapatero was guilty of any political indiscretion, it was having splintered his own party by airing latent gripes with its ruling order. His official biographer summed up Zapatero thusly: “He’s not mortgaged by the past. He can simply fulfill the principles he has always held.”

Such preening enraged the establishment left, which felt the order buckling beneath it. Insensitive to the context, Treglown takes some of Zapatero’s critics at their word, especially when they insist that “the memory vogue has been exaggerated by the media.” One wonders, for instance, which media establishment he has in mind, because the most influential one comprises the conglomerate PRISA and its prestigious daily El País, which has tended to preach calm and reconciliation regarding the Francoist past. At one point, Treglown wonders aloud if “Spain’s problems in dealing with its own twentieth-century past are…the result of,” among other things, “a media greedy for controversy.” Passions do rage when the subject of the past comes up, and it’s true that the debates tend to generate more heat than light. But that is not the only asunto under discussion in Spain. As far as I could tell in my time reporting there, it is hardly a preponderant or dominant part of the political dialogue—least of all these days, when the economic crisis is on everyone’s mind.

For their part, mainstream Spanish conservatives are only too happy to play the history card, not so much out of a sense of venality as of good old-fashioned revanchism. Their story is a bit more predictable, which may be why Treglown does not spend much time with them. The Partido Popular is Spain’s big-tent party, encompassing everything from the center to the far right, and a national leader like the current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, is forever walking a fine line, although never less so than now: the economic crisis flushed the Socialists out of office in 2011 and gave conservatives the chance to govern without any genuine opposition. Recent austerity-era trial balloons over a whole host of policies (education being one example) have served as a dog whistle to the far right, who hear echoes of old Francoist tunes.

Even the Royal Academy of History, a body supported with public money and staffed by hoary old academics, has managed to discredit itself. In 2011, it produced an official biographical dictionary of Spain with an entry on Franco that neglects to mention the fact that he was a repressive dictator. Related entries were also marred by ideological hackery and professional ineptitude. Treglown’s chapter on this incident, which blew up (and quickly burned out) two years ago, is factually impeccable and well detailed. Yet he’s so committed to downplaying the drama of such spats that he sometimes falls short of telling it like it was. It is not a mark of hotheaded partisanship to find escapades like these infuriating, and at times Treglown’s equanimity can seem more disengaged than merely dispassionate.

* * *

Only a small portion of Treglown’s book is about the politics of historical memory in Spain, but that context is sorely needed to frame the rest of the study, a genre-by-genre survey of public works, monuments, artwork, literature and cinema spanning decades. These entries are mostly well-researched, freestanding summaries—some fine-grained, others sketches. Thematic patterns are strewn over some 300 pages. It might have been better to organize all the works under topics or themes: “women in Spain” or “the female experience during Franco” could have been one; “youth under the pall of repression” might have been another. Treglown smartly proposes these lines of analysis but never quite pulls them together. Franco’s Crypt reads like it began as something of a desk reference or, barring that, a collection of essays. In any case, it is hard to know exactly what we have on our hands here. We are in Spain most of the time, with artists and authors who never quite made it out from under Franco’s shadow, or so claims Treglown. But on occasion we do find ourselves in exile with some of the bigger names of the Spanish century, like the writers Max Aub and Ramón Sender.

To thread together the entries, Treglown develops an unfortunate tic: concluding his descriptions of Spanish artworks by insisting that they are as good as well-known twentieth-century masterworks, then lamenting that the “Franco effect” is to blame for their obscurity. “Everyone has heard of Beckett’s Godot,” he writes, but “few people outside Spain of Ferlioso’s El Jarama.” That, at least, is a good book—but regarding a string of rather dowdy social-realist novels about dam building and the destruction of rural towns in the 1940s and ’50s, Treglown says that their criticism of the regime was “a sentiment you might find in a work by Arthur Miller or Arnold Wesker. The difference is that it was published under the dictadura.” At times, his insistence undermines his case, because the tag lines sound like special pleading for works that could not stand on their own. And the more he harps on the injustices of the Franco effect, the more it seems that his whole premise is overdrawn. By the same token, when Treglown presses hard, he ends up proving a truism: life in Spain may have been arid under Franco, but it was not entirely an intellectual or artistic desert. But who, in good faith, ever thought it was?

How does one chronicle the life of the arts under Franco? One way might be as a story of the rise and fall of the social-realist aesthetic. In film, where Spanish directors, in Treglown’s words, “were more cosmopolitan than most of their compatriots,” due in part to “their links with the Italian industry,” social realism offered wide-ranging possibilities. A young Carlos Saura, who later directed the disquieting Prima Angélica (1974), could feel empowered in his youth by the fact “that you could make films in the street and put ordinary people in them.” How better to challenge life under the regime than to do it in what was then a respected international mode? Treglown does well to point out that the Francoist censors were rarely hip to social satire, particularly when it came to cinema. The only film Luis Buñuel made in Franco’s Spain is a classic example: the racy, jaw-dropping Viridiana (1961) skated past the censors, went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and, later, to the embarrassment of the regime, was denounced by the Vatican. Treglown, who dubs the film a “social-realist morality play,” deadpans his plot summary to make the point.

In the case of Luis García Berlanga—an inspired Spanish counterpart to Billy Wilder—the satire is pitch-perfect. In El Verdugo (1963), a hapless young undertaker marries a woman whose father is an executioner and gets forced into the profession when his in-law retires. He is terrified by the job, dreading the thought of having to perform it, and when it’s time for his first execution, he flies into a panic; ultimately, the executioner, not the condemned man, takes on the manic state of the victim. As Treglown observes, the satire ranges from an indictment of capital punishment to a swipe at run-of-the-mill nepotism. But the touch is light enough to camouflage its edginess with slapstick charm. Berlanga also had something in common with the gallows humor of the great Spanish comic Miguel Gila, whose 1950s monologues about the civil war still crop up in conversation today. One wishes Treglown had explored the lives and work of Gila and his ilk too, because Franco-era comedy—proof of life in spite of the dictadura—would have fit well with the broader themes and aims of his book. Moreover, Berlanga and Gila are those rare Franco-era figures whose satire has been invoked by present-day activists protesting the ravages of austerity and the missteps of the political class.

Authors did not fare as well as filmmakers. For the most part, Treglown is so intent on proving that writers living in Franco’s Spain were capable of engaging critically with life under the regime that he underplays how they chose to do it. (Notable exceptions include the novelist Carmen Laforet and the Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela, whom he handles well.) Often their very mode of expression became a problem. Franco precipitated a crisis of literary style in Spain in the 1960s, and something of an inferiority complex set in when key elements in the Spanish publishing industry cast their lot with the literary experiments of the Latin American “boom” writers. One Spanish critic spoke for a growing contingent of his countrymen when he said: “We can no longer stand the boredom of this country…. When we read [the Latin Americans] we simply realize one thing: they are alive…. they use a living language.” Another fascinating twist, told by Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola in his book The Censorship Files (2007), is that Franco’s censors eased restrictions on the distribution of Latin American novels by Spanish houses because they expected big international sales and a consequent national windfall.

Treglown mostly overlooks the style wars of the 1960s, when realism fell out of favor as a means of writing about life under Franco. Before the regime liberalized the press, realism served a basic information function, according to Mario Santana in his excellent Foreigners in the Homeland (2000). But the changing landscape in Spain—and the world—in the 1960s obviated the old perks of the style. It also helps explain why so much Spanish writing from the middle Franco years has remained obscure: with its intense localism and spare style, little of it has aged well, and much of it, inevitably, gets flattened in English translation.

True to form, Franco is both everywhere and nowhere in Franco’s Crypt. Treglown gives us a nice rundown of his ghostwritten hagiographic novel turned film, Raza (1942). But mostly the caudillo appears through indirection in the works under discussion. Wherever writers, artists and filmmakers smarted, struggled or persevered, there is usually some faint impression of Franco to be found, “flitting round the dark corners,” to lift a phrase from Conrad. There was the blood-soaked ruthless leader at the helm through the 1940s and ’50s, and the doddering but dangerously mercurial figurehead of the ’60s and ’70s. Whatever his incarnation, he never ceased to loom large.

The late Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies used to tell the story of how Franco, at a major Spanish art show, stood before the painter’s work and listened to his advisers inform him that “this is the revolutionaries’ room.” The dictator’s reply was as cheerful as it was sinister: “So long as this is how they carry out the revolution.” Or so the story goes—it may well be apocryphal, but it was nevertheless something Tàpies used to remind himself and others about, either with relief or pain at having his work so decisively neutered, a Franco effect of an entirely different order.

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